Greetings and my best to you. I read your piece, “Huey P. Newton – revisited.” I found it extremely interesting although at this point the depth of my knowledge of Newton’s writings is still insufficiently shallow, so I’ll limit myself to those issues you raised.
Newton and those around him were by far the most theoretically advanced within the settler empire at that time. Although they were not infallible, and it is from their mistakes, as well as their successes, that lessons must be drawn. There is an abundance of material written and practical experiences to draw from. From the quotations that you drew from in your piece, you emphasize in a favorable light, Newton’s mistakes rather than criticizing them constructively in order to foster the advancement of theory and practice.
I wasn’t aware that Newton was a steadfast adherent of the theory of “the negation of the negation.” This is interesting considering that Newton was not only a student and practitioner of Maoism, but well versed in his works. You see Mao had a different take on this. In his 1964 “Talk on questions of philosophy” he said, ‘…Engels talked about the three categories but as for me, I don’t believe in two of those categories. The juxtaposition, on the same level, of the transformation of quality and quantity into one another, the negation of the negation, and the law of opposites, is ‘triplism’, not ‘monism.’ The most basic thing is the unity of opposites. The transformation of quality and quantity into one another is the unity of opposites quantity and quality. There is no such thing of the negation of the negation. Affirmation, negation, affirmation, negation. Slave holding society negated primitive society, but with reference to feudal society it constitutes in turn, the affirmation. Feudal society constituted the negation in relation to slave holding society, but it was in turn the affirmation with reference to capitalist society. Capitalist society was the negation in relation to feudal society, but it is in turn, the affirmation in relation to socialist society…’
Mao was asserting that the transformation of quantity and quality into one another is not a separate process, but another aspect in the same process in the struggle of opposites, i.e., the law of the unity of opposites. In particular regards to the negation of the negation, I’ve struggled with this for some time and I’m convinced Mao’s line on this process is an accurate reflection of objective reality. I don’t know if this is adequate, but maybe this crude illustration will help convey what Mao was describing:
Dialectical materialism reveals to us that all objects and phenomena are not only in motion in relation to other objects and phenomena, but of greater significance, it reveals to us that all objects and phenomena are in a reciprocal relationship, interpenetrating and exerting their influence on one another’s development in a perpetual process of internal qualitative transformation. I’m sure that you’re well aware of this already, but it’s necessary to review as it is relevant to our discussion.
To expand on this further is to understand that we humans will never know the secrets of the “Beginning” or the “End” as Newton insisted, because for objective matter there is no beginning or end, only an endless process of transformation. This has been born out through scientific experiments. So long as we humans are in existence as a species, with each new transformation of matter, especially those brought about by humans, new questions (and consciousness in general) will reflect and arise in correspondence to these new transformations, and more knowledge will continuously be gained, further penetrating the nature of matter and its secrets.
This is reinforced with the law of conservation and transformation of energy which was first discovered in the 19th century, thus confirming Descartes 17th century principle that the quantity of motion in the world is constant. This law and other discoveries have demonstrated that all the various forms of motion of matter – magnetism, chemical energy, heat, mechanical energy, light, solids, liquids, gases, … all transform into one another under given conditions “without” any loss of energy, i.e. matter.
Engels provided us with an accurate description of this process in his “dialectics of nature,”: “… If we change heat into mechanical motion or vise-versa, is not the quality altered while the quantity remains the same? Quite correct. Change of form of motion is always a process that takes place between at least two bodies, of which one loses a definite quantity of motion of one quality, while the other gains a corresponding quantity of motion of another quality (mechanical motion, electricity, chemical decomposition)…”
The law of conservation and transformation of energy has successfully demonstrated that matter can neither be created from nothing, nor can it be reduced to nothing, it is infinite. There is no beginning and there is no end, just an infinite process of transformation. This is significant in that it not only “excludes” an external motive force as the source and creation of matter and its motion, but it likewise, reinforces an emphasis on internal contradictions (unity of opposites) as the primary source of matters motion.
You quoted Newton in his “Intercommunalism” as saying: “…and then we will move to an even higher stage. I like to think that we will finally move to a stage called ‘godliness,’ where man will know the secrets of the beginning and end and will have full control of the universe – and when I say universe, I mean all motion and matter…”
Not only is Newton incorrect on this point for those reasons already expounded upon, but it is also here that Newton departs from scientific materialism and takes up a metaphysical position.
In opposition to scientific materialism are the proponents of metaphysics and idealism, who contend that the source of all matter and its motion is the result of external forces and influences. The metaphysicians live in a static and mechanical “Q-Ball” universe where “A” hits “B”, and “B” hits “C”, and “C” hits “D”, in an endless succession, and the motion of each is the result of the others exertion.
If not an endless procession of internal transformation, what set “A” – or in this case, all matter and the universe – into motion?” When Newton promotes the concept of a “beginning” and an “end,” he’s removing the opposing forces inherent in all matter as the primary source of motion and promoting an external motive force as creating and setting into motion this “Beginning,” which simultaneously swings the door wide open for superstition, a divine creator, god(s), etc, a consciousness not only separated and divorced from matter, but existing prior to it. No doubt this is unintentional on Newton’s part, but nonetheless, it’s an abandonment of scientific materialism and an adoption of metaphysical idealism.
In particular, reference to the quotations you provided from Newton’s “On the relevance of the church,” it is essential to understand that the motion of matter proceeds through stages, periods of relatively slow quantitative development, which at nodal points results in rapid qualitative transformations. As we’re well aware of, the source of this motion, quantitative and qualitative, is to be found within matter itself as a result of the struggle of opposing tendencies inherent within it.
It is the stage when quantitative developments transform into something qualitatively new that the old contradictions struggling within the quantitative stage have begun to resolve themselves and give rise to new contradictions, that qualitative transformation arises.
Using a concrete example that I’m sure you’re familiar with, think of slave holding society of antiquity. The principal contradiction inherent within this stage of economic development which propelled society forward giving it motion, was that between the slaves and the slave holding state (not excluding the conflicting interests of other social classes which developed out of this principal contradiction).
In various forms, sometimes manifesting itself through the conflicts of other social classes, this struggle carried on for multiple centuries without ever changing the essential nature of its production. It was still an economic system based upon slave production with a corresponding social system. That is, it was still in its “quantitative” stage of development.
Although the contradiction between the productive forces on the one hand (the instruments of production and those who do the producing), and the relations of production on the other hand (property relations and the social system that develop in correspondence to it), intensified to such a degree that the continuity of slave holding societies could no longer be sustained. These contradictions began to resolve themselves through self-consuming internal eruptions and wars with neighboring states, thus giving birth to qualitatively new contradictions in the process, i.e. feudalist production and the struggle between the peasantry and nobility as well as every other social class in between. A new stage of economic development in human society had come into existence.
Getting close to the point at hand, in this struggle between the slaves and the slave holding state, it was the slaves and lowest classes that represented the most progressive and revolutionary aspect within society struggling to transform and push society forward whereas the opposing tendencies were the state and aristocracy who represented the most “Reactionary” aspect of society as they only reacted to suppress those progressive forces below in an attempt to preserve their material existence as a social class.
Could we imagine Spartacus advocating the “need” and preservation of the slave owning state for the sake of progress that would come as a result of this struggle between the slaves and the state? Not only is this tautology at its finest, its essentially reactionary irregardless of its packaging. It would amount to perpetuating the oppression and misery of the slaves for the progress that would come to the slaves as a result of their oppression and misery.
On the other hand, it would be revolutionary for the slaves and lowest classes to advocate and struggle for the destruction and transformation of the slave holding state, because only through the destruction of this particular mode of production could the possibility of something new arise.
Although not as conspicuous, this is tantamount to Newton’s position on the church and his avocation for its preservation, “…we believe it needs to exist…religion perhaps, is a thing that man needs at this time because scientists can not answer all of the questions…”
We need to understand that scientists will never know all of the answers because with each new transformation of matter, new questions will continuously arise. But more to the point, to promote the preservation of a phenomenon that hinders knowledge and foments ignorance, is to promote the preservation of the status-quo, prolonging the resolution of those current contradictions and the development of something qualitatively new. Despite good intentions, in essence, this is reactionary.
And although the two are inseparably interconnected and influence one another’s development, we must distinguish between something’s “form” and its “essence.” A label doesn’t determine the nature of a process anymore than a paint job on a car determines its make or model. The nature of a given phenomenon is not determined by its external appearances or the labels we attach to it, but by the objective necessity existing within it and the laws which govern the direction and development of its motion. Although the form in which a particular phenomenon manifests itself will vary depending upon the conditions in which it develops and interacts.
The same applies to the church. Within given conditions the church manifests itself in progressive forms – such as clothing drives, food programs for the poor, etc. But we must never lose sight of its reactionary nature and promote its preservation.
In regards to focoism (foquismo), to fully comprehend the incorrectness of this strategy, it is necessary to understand the relationship between consciousness and matter, at least in a rudimentary way.
Matter is primary and consciousness is secondary. Objective matter is not dependent on subjective consciousness for its existence. Matter can, and does, exist without consciousness – ideas, thoughts, theories, plans, ways of thinking, policies, etc. Although subjective consciousness can not exist without matter because it is matter that is reflected in our brains through our five sense organs giving shape to our consciousness. Without matter there can be no consciousness. In fact the brain itself is nothing more than a highly developed form of complex matter with the ability of cognizing the external world around it.
Obviously people living under somewhat different material conditions will develop somewhat different ideas and ways of thinking that more or less correspond and reflect their material conditions.
Without the necessary objective conditions (widespread poverty, oppression, etc) the development of the subjective conditions (revolutionary consciousness) will be limited and not develop beyond the point necessary to sustain a thorough revolutionary transformation. There is a dialectical relationship, an inseparable struggle, between our living conditions and the political consciousness of the people. In society, the objective and subjective conditions are not only interdependent on one another for their development, but they influence one another’s motion and development as well, in a reciprocal relationship. When objective conditions deteriorate, in search of solutions to their deteriorating material conditions, people become more receptive to political education (subjective preparations).
We can think of the objective conditions as the fertile soil necessary for the subjective conditions to sprout and flourish. Although of greater importance, objective conditions by themselves (poverty, oppression, etc) will not automatically give rise to the subjective conditions (a revolutionary consciousness) anymore than a fertile field will automatically give growth to a flourishing crop. The subjective conditions must be cultivated and nurtured within the people, like a farmer cultivates and nurtures a crop. And only through this process can a successful struggle develop.
The error of focoism is that it places a primary emphasis on armed actions as a means to ignite the population to rebellion without first “sufficiently” cultivating and nurturing a revolutionary consciousness within the population. Moreover the focoists go so far as to contend that if the objective conditions do not exist they can bring them into existence through armed actions and a revolutionary consciousness within the people will automatically develop in correspondence to these actions and the states repressive reactions. As the author of “Blood In My Eye” wrote, “…should we wait for something that is not likely to occur for decades? The conditions that are not present must be manufactured…”
This strategy has proven time and time again to fail, within and outside of U.S. borders. It has turned the very people it was intended to mobilize against the adventurers themselves. This is because a supportive revolutionary consciousness had not been developed within the people first. With particular regards to the U.S., this was not possible because the objective conditions were lacking on a large scale.
As politically advanced as Newton and those around him were, one of the mistakes they made was practicing focoism, which Newton himself acknowledges in the quotation you provided, “in conversation with William F. Buckley Feb 11, 1973.” And although Newton recognized that this adventurist approach was incorrect, others around him continued to push this line, theoretically and in practice.
Their operating above ground the way they did was adventurist in that the conditions for them to do so successfully were not (and are still not) in existence. They not only unnecessarily exposed themselves prematurely to internal and external enemies while they were still in a weak embryonic stage, they couldn’t possibly maintain the support necessary to survive being that the objective conditions necessary for massive support did not exist on a large enough scale.
We see this same adventurist approach being repeated today with the NABPP-PC. Never mind that their class analysis is incorrect, their location of operation is adventurist in that “everything” that is written must pass through the hands of the enemy, which is the equivalent of allowing the pigs to sit in on central committee meetings. To believe that democratic centralism can be practiced effectively from a jail cell is not only naïve, it compromises others. Rather than subject themselves, and many other comrades to unnecessary heat and avoidable set backs, in the interest of developing a movement with a correct political i.e., they should relegate their work and resources to MIM.
This article originally appeared in Under Lock and Key 2005